The Dragon Prayer Book Breathes Fire

I’m so excited about how this amazing team of students has breathed life into the dragon -and how just a little bit of breath has let it speak back to us. Laura Packard, the project manager, along with Meghan Jones, a newer recruit to the team, applied for a grant to investigate the musical dimension of the manuscript. Their grant permitted us to invite MIT Professor Michael Cuthbert to lead the Northeastern community in learning about how the prayer book would have been used and in leading us all in several chants!  Music that has not been sung for perhaps five centuries filled the air, and the echo of a culture with a daily practice so radically foreign to ours became faintly perceptible in a space those original voices could not have even imagined.


This event drew students from a diverse array of majors, enthusiastic about it for different reasons. What struck me was how many stayed around afterward to hear about the variety of ways they could get involved, whether through a microbiological analysis or through working up the website or through a staged performance of the music. Not only have we resuscitated the Dragon’s music, but its own fiery breath has sparked a fire of interest in our Northeastern community.


But while this event was the most exciting public moment in our project this semester, the day to day of the project is as fun as it ever was -the thrill of decipherment never seems to grow old. And new forms of collaboration have emerged, e.g. the entire group has been known to chime in casually on one another’s questions as each individual pursues her own lines of text. I recall one moment in which I was pondering a word on Connor Hamill’s page with him, Meghan chimed in, and Laura finished it! Laura has also been instrumental in locating and discovering, er, instruments of musical transcription, namely:


And to play that music:


To continue with the theme of breath, we’ve chosen the “ah” vocal option, which sounds a little hilarious. Since we only have small snippets of music, we hear a short set of ah’s that, when played, generate a momentary set of expectations about where the music is going, only to have those expectations dashed instantly when the snippet ends abruptly. I’ve tried to locate music that we’ve identified in sung versions on Youtube, but these uniformly sound different from our little snippets. It’s really hard to get a sense of the piece as a whole from just the first few notes, but this is perhaps a function of our lack of familiarity with this music.  Most people can identify a contemporary song from just the opening sequence, so I suspect that medieval singers would have been experts at “name that tune” when they saw the music -and hence the snippets as memory jogs.


Speaking of which, there is quite an interesting para-musical system that tells you whether your music will only be sung above the initial note (the “authentic” option, ‘singnified’ -my pun- by odd numbers) or music that will sung both above and below the initial note (the “plagal” option, singnaled -he he- by an even number next to the text below the snippet). I wonder why no one ever sang below the initial note?  When Myke Cuthbert was explaining this, I immediately thought of Chinese and its four tonalities, and wondered about whether this reflected a theory or practice of singing itself (see next sentence), or offer insight into the ways that people thought about the musicality of their spoken language. Regarding chant practices, when I was in a Russian choir the director advised us to mentally anticipate the next note as we sung chants. It was a practice that was less about distinguishing individual notes than showing ways in which the analogical features of the scale.

The more we learn about the music in the DPB, the more we find ourselves in a state of both awe and “ah.”